Published on 21 April 2020

One of the books that I’ve read recently which has furthered and deepened my appreciation for the natural world is Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. In the last chapter, he lays out a land ethic - how we can approach land ethically and sustainably. While I was reading, I couldn’t help but think about the corollaries between land and open source. The metaphor of open source as a digital commons is quite old; however, the metaphor of open source as an ecosystem in which all people are playing a part is less applied, and I think also worthwhile.

I’ve provided the salient last passage here in full. Where I thought prudent, I’ve interspersed my own comments.

It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land and a high regard for its value. By value, I of course mean something far broader than mere economic value; I mean value in the philosophical sense.

The idea of open source as being valuable outside of its function in the monetary ecosystem is something I am keen on exploring, in general. Open source is more than a bank account.

Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land. Your true modern is separate from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets. He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow. Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a ‘scenic’ area, he is bored stiff. If crops could be raised by hydroponics instead of farming, it would suit him very well. Synthetic substitutes for wood, leather, wool, and other natural land products suit him better than the originals. In short, land is something he has ‘outgrown.’

This could apply directly to humans using technology, but could also be extended to refer to the modern user using browsers or applications without concerns for low-level modules which are incredibly important towards the end product, which not only are depended upon but also influence key design decisions. A good example would be protocols for communication, which influence how we build our applications (offline first? decentralized first? inevitably siloed, due to TCP/IP requirements? etc).

Almost equally serious as an obstacle to a land ethic is the attitude of the farmer for whom the land is still an adversary or a taskmaster that keeps him in slavery. Theoretically, the mechanization of farming ought to cut the farmer’s chains, ‘ but whether it really does is debatable.

One of the requisites for an ecological comprehension of land is an understanding of ecology, and this is by no means co-extensive with ‘education’; in fact, much higher education seems deliberately to avoid ecological concepts. An understanding of ecology does not necessarily originate in courses bearing ecological labels; it is quite as likely to be labeled geography, botany, agronomy, history, or economics. This is as it should be, but whatever the label, ecological training is scarce.

How many people who use the term ‘ecosystem’ to describe code have actually read an ecology textbook, I wonder?

The case for a land ethic would appear hopeless but for the minority which is in obvious revolt against these ‘modern’ trends.

The ‘key-log’ which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Emphasis added. I want to add this quote to my email footer. If something doesn’t add to the integrity, stability, or beauty of open source, it is ethically and esthetically wrong. There’s a lot to mull on, here.

It of course goes without saying that economic feasibility limits the tether of what can or cannot be done for land. It always has and it always will. The fallacy the economic determinists have tied around our collective neck, and which we now need to cast off, is the belief that economics determines all land-use. This is simply not true. An innumerable host of actions and attitudes, comprising perhaps the bulk of all land relations, is determined by the land-users’ tastes and predilections, rather than by his purse. The bulk of all land relations hinges on investments of time, forethought, skill and faith rather than on investments of cash. As a land-user thinketh, so is he.

I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written.’ Only the most superficial student of history supposes that Moses ‘wrote’ the Decalogue; it evolved in the minds of a thinking community, and Moses wrote tentative summary of it for a ‘seminar.’ I say tentative because evolution never stops.

Which is, in a paragraph, one of the reasons I feel totally justified interspersing my thoughts here and not writing up some sort of watered down abstraction of Leopold’s thought.

The evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well an emotional process. Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land or of economic land-use. I think it is a truism that as the ethical frontier advances from the individual to the community, its intellectual content increases.

All the feels, all the thoughts. One of the questions this brings to my mind is this: what is the nature of intellectual content? Tweets? Projects? Forks?

The mechanism of operation is the same for any ethic: social approbation for right actions: social disapproval for wrong actions.

And yet, how often are we constrained by the dual needs of claiming our employers are the end-all of our work, or can do no wrong (think gag statements or PR approval), and yet the other need of being willing to explore social disapproval as a growth mechanism for the industry as a whole?

By and large, our present problem is one of attitudes and implements. We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam shovel, and we are proud of our yardage. We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use.”

Overall, I think the rest of the book is also fantastic (his section on woodcocks and grouse are beautiful, and I’m not just saying that because I bird fanatically). This last section, however, reminds me over and over again about something my friend tried to drill into me over the dinner table one afternoon, using laughter as a weapon: your worth is not decided by your paycheck, nor your usefulness, nor your relationships. Your worth is somewhere else. Stop tying it down to individual aspects of your behavior and existence.

In the same way, we need to find a gentler and more objective criteria for the usefulness and worth of open source software.

As any great writing, this passage from Leopold opens up more questions than answers. I’d suggest you go read the book, too.